Reporters Aren’t Like Us

A KMSP reporter’s phone records are grabbed by the St. Paul police, and the station and the Society of Professional Journalists call it a violation of the First Amendment. And I doubt many regular citizens care, because journalists are not held in high regard, as Tony Snow helped me understand on Bill O’Reilly’s show tonight.

It’s a hard concept to understand — that reporters shouldn’t be part of the law-enforcement system. If police can grab the film from photojournalists covering a riot, for example, then rioters will make sure that no photographers have pictures to hand over to the police. And then we won’t have a journalistic eye inside the next riot. (We needed pictures of what turned out to be a police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 to see that it was the cops who went homicidally berserk, not the demonstrators. The whole world can’t be watching if the journalists aren’t in the fray.) We need journalists to be able to get inside what’s going on so we can know what’s happening, not just what the police say is happening. 

Why shouldn’t law enforcement be able to get a reporter’s phone records to find the leak of information from an investigation (information, in the KMSP case, that should have been public to begin with)? Because we need to know how people in law enforcement are doing their jobs. The KMSP case was about a woman whose husband had shot a plainclothes cop in a fit of road rage. Reporter Tom Lyden heard that this woman had been involved in a previous road-rage incident, and tried to find out about it. The cops said the information was not public — law enforcement’s default position. Turns out the earlier report should have been public, and now is. But Lyden got the information from another source, and the St. Paul cops wanted to know who that source was. So they got Lyden’s cell phone records.

Lyden told the Star Tribune that citizens should be worried about this, because “if they do it to me, a member of the press, they can do it to anyone.”

But not a lot of regular folks are protecting government officials who leak. Was there a lot of sympathy for Robert Novak protecting the Scooter Libbey leak? Although the First Amendment principle is that government should go after reporters’ information only as a last resort, after law enforcement has exhausted all other avenues to get the information, nobody feels too bad when a reporter is subpoenaed.

Tony Snow, former conservative journalist and Bush flak, helped me understand why. He was having fun dumping on journalists on the O’Reilly factor tonight. They were talking about Huckabee and Romney and religion — about how the liberal media are mocking religious candidates and people of faith. Of course O’Pompous and Snowjob were exaggerating — that’s the fun of it. But they held up Newsweek’s cover story on Huckabee, with a photo showing the former Arkansas gov with folded hands, as an example of this journalistic mocking. It was a stretch. The O’Boys said libjournalists want Huck to win so they can keep making fun of religion.

But Snow’s point was this — most reporters aren’t religious. There are 275 million Christians in America, Snow said (he neglected to mention any other than the state religion), and journalists, who don’t go to church, think religion is quackery. They’re not like us, he said. The liberal media aren’t mainstream Americans.

During Vietnam and now Iraq, reporters writing about the negative aspects of the war were called unpatriotic. Not good Americans.

I’d say reporters who only parrot the administration line — LBJ’s or Nixon’s or Bush’s — without digging beneath the press releases and briefings aren’t good Americans. But I’m a recovering reporter, so I’m not a true mainstream ‘Murican to Tony.

And it’s true. Journalists aren’t like the average American. Most are better educated than average, and better paid. And most are more liberal than average, study after study shows — and they remain liberal while they age, unlike most people. And they are less likely to attend church than average Americans.

But, as my brother Michael says, having learned it from Frank Ario in philosophy class at Washburn High, it’s an argument ad hominem to attack the person when you don’t like the message.

But attacking journalists — even when it’s Fox journalists doing it — is a national sport. And it’s just too easy — fish in a barrel. But if we write off journalists because they’re not like us, then we won’t get the benefit of what good journalism does — challenge conventional thinking, whether from the left or the right.

— Bruce Benidt

5 thoughts on “Reporters Aren’t Like Us

  1. jmaustin says:

    While I agree with almost everything you say, I have to confess a little bemusement at the fact that we’re rushing to the barricades in defense of Tom Lyden, the one reporter in town I know is willing to break the law (remember the stealing the videotapes out of the car?) in pursuit of a story.


  2. jmaustin says:

    Here’s the first couple of graphs from a long piece on reportorial behavior in the wake of this event that’s a pretty good summary:

    “On April 27, 2000, KMSP-TV reporter Tom Lyden pursued the story of a professional boxer accused of staging illegal dog fights. When that story eventually aired, little did Lyden realize that the story would be easily upstaged by the manner in which he pursued it. As part of his investigation of the story, Lyden took a videotape depicting dogfights from a car parked on private property where 13 pit bulls had been seized. After making a copy of the tape, Lyden turned over the original copy to Sherburne County authorities on May 2, and KMSP-TV aired the dogfighting tape the next day.

    After accusations first flew that he committed crimes while gathering information for that story, Lyden simply defended his actions as “aggressive reporting.” Days later, criticisms from his professional colleagues surfaced. Eventually, Sherburne County prosecutors formally charged him with three misdemeanor counts – theft, temporary theft, and motor-vehicle tampering. Lyden responded by publicly apologizing on the air: “Caught in the rush of the story, I went too far. . . Once I viewed the tape, and saw more than two hours of dog-fighting footage, I felt I had two obligations. First, turn the tape over to the police because it showed a crime. Second, inform the public about a viciously inhumane sport.”

    If I remember correctly, Mr. Lyden pled guilty and the charges were kicked.

  3. Sparky says:

    what good journalism does — challenge conventional thinking

    Wrong. Good journalism reports facts. Op-ed challenges conventional thinking. Journalism is so broken it deserves to be ridiculed.

  4. Lovely — Lyden believes it’s okay to be part of law enforcement when it fits his view of things. I’ll be a little slower to feel sorry for him — but it’s not about him, it’s about cops infringing on a reporter’s work product.

    And Sparky, ridicule away. I ridicule the press freely, while also thanking God for the First Amendment and wishing the media were more rowdy.

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